Wednesday, April 09, 2008

what do brokerages really do with your money?

We will never know the whole story of the Bear Stearns fire-sale to Morgan Stanley. There is not a lot of transparency in these things. But I have a different perspective. I think Bear Stearns was no bailout. It was a cover up.

Some indication of what might have happened if Bear had been allowed to fail was given last week when Australian brokerage Opes Prime went bankrupt. Opes Prime's laundry is seeing the light of day.

What was Opes Prime doing that resulted in their bankrupcy? It seems that some of their best customers, either hedge funds or “high net worth individuals”, were getting in trouble with their leveraged positions. They were getting shredded. Normally this would result in a simple margin call, the fund would liquidate its losing position and settle up. Things would be fine. But there might be a problem if the client's loss was very large. The worst thing that could happen is that the client would declare bankruptcy and not pay.

This is a problem because of the way modern brokerages work. All investments in brokerages these days are held in street name. None are registered to the account holder. The brokerage is the real owner of the investment. This is true for shares, contracts, derivatives, bonds, everything. This is what allows quick discount trading. The broker takes advantage of the situation to keep the securities on their books as assets. All the account holder has is a claim on those assets. On the other hand, every asset is also a liability. Just in the way a bank can be “too big to fail” for the Fed, a customer can be too big to fail for a brokerage. A large and heavily leveraged investor can take down a brokerage. If the client goes bankrupt, its liabilities become the brokerage's liabilities.

So what happened to Opes' customers? They lost everything. Not just the ones with losing positions, but any customer with a margin loan of any size, even if they were well in the black. This is because Opes pledged clients' shares as collateral for capital loans from another bank. They needed cash to keep their biggest clients solvent.

Was Opes the only brokerage in this age of widespread greed and fraud to play fast and loose with its customer's money? And, even more importantly, how would we ever know? Wall street is one of those magical self-regulating industries that needs only token oversight. Do you think the SEC cares about you or your account? I think you should assume your brokerage has pledged your shares and mutual funds as collateral for it's own needs. There is a prevalent attitude on wall street that anything goes as long as it makes money and doesn't show up in the news. But bad news is now coming out daily.

You are hanging on the end of a chain that has a series of weak links. It doesn't matter if you have a large account, small account, IRA account, mutual fund, margin or cash, or whatever. It is all registered in street name, and you are last to get paid if things go badly. If any one of various counter-parties to your brokerages' own positions defaults, your brokerage can be wiped out very fast. Or if one or more big clients turns turtle, either funds or individuals, your chain breaks. Your account can go from anything to zero overnight, not because your stocks went down but because you no longer own your shares. All you can do is take them to court. (who do your think will have the more effective legal team?) Sure you might have a strong case and a good claim. But just because someone else commited a crime, and you didn't, doesn't mean you will get your money back. In the end, if your brokerage goes down, you will be lucky to see pennies for dollars.

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